Does Richard Cohen have a learning disability?

I’m not being cheeky. I’m genuinely wondering. Because he seems to have struggled so mightily with basic math that it suggests a possible undiagnosed learning disability, which isn’t a funny thing. It also sounds like the girl in his linked column to whom he’s directing the bad advice that math doesn’t matter—a girl who failed “algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it” and subsequently dropping out of school—may well have an undiagnosed learning disability, too. And that makes his column not just ridiculous or ill-advised, but tragic.

PZ Meyers (who gets the hat tip; passed on by Shaker Angelos) addresses quite well many of the problems with the column—most importantly that advising a student that math doesn’t matter is advocating ignorance. And that may well be the case. But when I clicked through and read Cohen’s column, I didn’t feel nearly as angry about what he saying as I did sad that he was saying it. It seemed less like an endorsement of ignorance than a justification for it.

Anyone who’s worked as a math tutor before undoubtedly has stories of working with someone who was smart enough to “get it,” but couldn’t. Someone who would become so intimidated by the work, that they could barely stand to look at the paper, barely allow themselves to try lest it just result in another failure. Someone who would throw their hands up in the air in frustration and say, “Why do we even need math, anyway? I’m never going to use this in real life.”

It struck me that that column had been written by someone just like that, about someone else just like, too.

Like the more widely-known dyslexia, which is associated with reading, dyscalculia manifests first in a struggle to work with numbers and understand associated concepts, and, left untreated, can lead to math aversion of phobic proportions. And also like dyslexia, it’s treatable. But it’s got to be diagnosed.

Cohen may have spent a lifetime running away from feeling like “a dummy,” because no one ever noticed that he has dyscalculia. It may have left him defensive—and therefore blind to the likelihood of his subject sharing the same unfortunate fate. Perhaps he only lacks compassion and perspective on this subject because he never got any himself. Rarely is someone who excels elsewhere just “a dummy” when it comes to math.

The point shouldn’t be that math doesn’t matter; it’s that diagnosing math-related learning disabilities does.

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